People Are Telling Us What They Want From Cities, We're Just Not Listening.

We speculate a lot about what people want from their cities. But for the most part, the conversations about what people want are based on the perspective of entities with biases about residents’ needs. People in city government assume citizens want more services and for the city to spend more, but suggest there are not enough funds to do what is required. Vendors and businesses believe people want more of what they are selling, and that city government gets in the way. But what do the people truly want? What are they saying they want?

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Fully accessible libraries, PDs and fire stations via connectivity, collaboration tools and spaces to become community solution centers addressing local issues via facilitated sessions and providing needed services such as telehealth, mental health, job training etc."

The comment above was one of the comments by 100 respondents who attended the City of The Future conference and shared their perspectives on what they would do if they had no constraints. The responses were collected through a 25/10 crowdsourcing session, run by Douglas Ferguson of Voltage Control, which provided a peek into what residents actually see as concerns for their city. Even within the context of a conference that was all about the City of the Future, the responses were overwhelmingly indicative of a desire to see more humanity in the design and development of the ideal city. Only 1 of the 100 comments alluded to the ‘built environment’ as an additional need, recognizing  that we already have the infrastructure we need for granting access to populations in our cities that do not have the resources required to thrive in our cities. Transportation was another theme that came up, with 17.5% of the comments suggesting the need to upgrade and expand different modes of mobility, especially for those without their own means of transportation, a real issue in the vast Texas cities. Access to technology, unsurprisingly, showed up as a need, but it was apparent that it wasn’t as much of a priority as the vendors who tout their own products suggest. The message, if I can paraphrase, is that ‘we already have the technology we need, what we need is humanity and a willingness to provide access to all.’

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Something that was glaring and apparent to me, probably because of the lens through which I now look at cities, was near-invisibility of how most  cities are in a slightly precarious state when it comes to access to quality potable water. Most people in the US do not realize that we face a real challenge of providing access to water and they would be shocked to learn that there are cities like Sandbranch Texas, which has never had access to running water in its 138 years of existence. Cities across the US are currently facing one or more of 6 diverse access challenges:

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Image courtesy of The Environmental Finance Blog UNC School of Government Environmental Finance Center.

  1. Contaminated and at-risk wells

  2. Unsanitary onsite wastewater disposal

  3. Lack of basic indoor plumbing

  4. Customers with substandard plumbing

  5. Customers struggling to pay

  6. Contaminated water supplies

These issues on the customer side come from and amplify operational difficulties that the utility faces in providing water to its residents. To address this situation we will need both a willingness by those with ability to pay more for their water supply and companies that are willing to work with these utilities even if the work of equipping them with resources and tools is a slog.

The truth of the situation is that even as we focus on providing access to all city residents, most people can survive without access to the internet or even electricity. But no one, regardless of the number of sensors we have around cities, can survive without clean quality water.

Best Practices for Managing Technological Change in The Utility Industry.

The water utility industry is glacial in its adoption of technology. There is evidence of this in never-ending pilot projects with startups that lead nowhere and in product design crowdsourcing campaigns that take a year and end up with products that remind one of the failed project.

But change the industry must. The new type of consumer demands it (push) and it is what technology wants (pull). Caught in the middle of this push and pull is a cadre of management that is struggling with understanding who the new consumer is and is hampered by the bureaucracy and hierarchical decision making process in an environment where speed is crucial. Centralized decision making in a networked world is a recipe for continued failure to serve customers optimally. What does suboptimal customer service look like? In the water industry it is poor quality water and in the power industry it is a failure to move quickly to sustainable sources of electricity. Built on a premise that the utility's role was to provide stable service reliably and, safely, the utility system (and the industry), has failed to adapt to a time where the consumers definition of service has grown exponentially.

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What is required is a decision making approach that facilitates speed without compromising on the need to continue to provide potable water or stable power safely and reliably (as newly defined by the consumer). The new approach should factor in the 4P’s and weigh the impact of any new technology based on these four factors below by asking some critical questions. There are a few more questions than the ones listed below and I cover these in the coming ebook ‘Managing Technological Change in the Water Utility Industry’. 

  • People: How will the new technology impact consumers and employees?

  • Product: How does the new technology change the product we are providing?

  • Performance: Do our processes change as a result of this new technology?

  • Policy: what are the policy implications of adopting this new technology?

A comprehensive risk and response prioritization assessment of the answers to the questions above is critical for success in an increasingly networked world. This enables the development of a simple radar chart that enables the manager make the case for the right projects to be implemented at the right speed. An example radar chart for Augmented Reality (AR) is shown below. As easily seen, employees and processes are most affected by AR. This is due to the possibility to train a new employee to address the skills shortage that is quickly becoming a big problem in utilities across the country.

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Simple heuristics like the 4Ps also provide a mindset modification to favor speed over ‘paralysis by analysis’. A much needed mindset change in the industry. As the industry moves to a distributed structure, as consumers request a deeper and more customized experience from their utility providers and as technology advances at all layers (from the infrastructure to the interaction layer) the ‘glacial-response-while-we-collect-bills-business-as-usual’ approach of the utility will no longer work.

It’s what technology wants and what customers absolutely deserve. And you and I know that technology eventually gets its way because customers will just go and get those services from someone else using those new technologies...